The social and the democratic, in the social democratic European city
Notes from Design and the City conference, Amsterdam, April 2016, where I was asked to summarise the day’s proceedings with a speech and this essay.
In the spring of 2016 Amsterdam finds itself, as per usual, at the heart of Europe’s debates. Over the next few months, it will host the drafting of a new European Urban Agenda, an opportunity to set a trajectory for the future development of European cities, at least from an EU perspective. It remains to be seen if that amounts to anything at all, but the question is a good one either way: what do we mean by the development of European cities? How should we develop European cities?
These are complex questions at this point. This is a Europe that is both unraveling and consolidating, unevenly. Contradiction is everywhere.
The compact and connected European city, exemplified by Amsterdam as much as anywhere, somehow continues to thrive in the face of economic, political and environmental crises, yet everywhere there is talk of new models, new approaches. Paradox reigns, and the centre is not holding.
An overheated ‘property’ market for those with too much money is contrasted with crushingly low quality ‘housing’ for those with no money. A continent based for millennia on the free movement of people struggles with the idea of migration. Inequality is rampant in a continent that also boasts a set of spirit-level economies, with a bait-and-switch of the Dutch welfare state for a ‘participatory society’ yet to convince. The Netherlands holds the EU Presidency while Geert Wilders’s PVV is rising up the country’s opinion polls.
Official and commercial exhortations for everything to become ‘smart’ run parallel with fears over imported neoliberal ideologies baked into the hardware of such technologies, and whether this will obliterate a European sensibility, whatever that may mean. Yet alongside, a real smart city emerges amongst cooperative groups, cellphone culture, fabrication projects and public sector innovation. The European Commission itself wants to be seen saying what are understood to be The Right Things — Startups! Growth! Innovation!— without giving a clear sense of any kind of European vision for this, about how this would reframe the shared, albeit…